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Head and Neck Cancer:Treatment Choices

There are various treatment choices for head and neck cancer. Which may work best for you? It depends on these factors:

  • Type, size, and location of the cancer

  • Results of lab tests

  • Extent of the disease, called the stage

  • Your overall health

  • Your age

  • Your personal concerns and preferences

Learning about your treatment options

You may have questions and concerns about your treatment options. You may also want to know how you’ll feel, how you'll look, and how your body will work after treatment, and if you’ll have to change your normal activities.

Your doctor is the best person to answer your questions. He or she can explain what the treatment choices are, how successful they are expected to be, what the risks and side effects may be, and how much it is likely to cost.

Your healthcare provider may advise a specific treatment. Or he or she may offer more than one, and ask you to decide which one you’d like to use. It can be hard to make this decision. It is important to take the time you need to make the best decision.

Deciding on the best plan may take some time. Talk with your healthcare provider about how much time you can take to explore your options. You may want to get another opinion before deciding on your treatment plan. In addition, you may want to involve your family and friends in this process.

Types of treatment for head and neck cancer

Treatment for cancer is either local or systemic. You may have both. 

  • Local treatments remove, destroy, or control cancer cells in 1 certain place in the body. Surgery and radiation are local treatments.

  • Systemic treatments destroy or control cancer cells throughout the entire body. Chemotherapy and targeted therapy are examples.

Goals of treatment for head and neck cancer

Treatment may control or cure the cancer. It can also improve your quality of life by helping to control the symptoms of the disease. The goal of head and neck cancer treatment is to do 1 or more of these things:

  • Remove the primary (main) cancer tumor or other tumors

  • Kill or stop the growth or spread of cancer cells

  • Prevent or delay the cancer's return

  • Ease symptoms of the cancer, such as pain or pressure in nearby tissues

Each type of treatment has a different goal. Talk to your doctor about treatment goals do you know what to expect.

Commonly used treatments for head and neck cancer

Here is a list of common head and neck cancer treatments:

Radiation therapy

Radiation uses X-rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. This is sometimes the only type of treatment used for head and neck cancer. More often it will be used together with chemotherapy or targeted therapy. And it is sometimes used to shrink a tumor before surgery so it's easier to remove without damaging nearby healthy tissues. It might be used after surgery, too, to kill any cancer cells that may be left behind. Radiation may also be used if the cancer comes back after initial treatment. Radiation only treats cancers in the area that is radiated.


The goal of surgery is to take out a tumor from the head and neck region and from lymph nodes if the cancer has spread to them. The smaller the tumor, the higher the chance of keeping functions, such as speaking and swallowing. Surgery may also be done to put in ports for chemotherapy and may place feeding tubes.Plastic or reconstructive surgery may be needed after treatment to help restore appearance and function in the area that was treated.


This is the use of medicines to treat the cancer. One goal of chemotherapy is to reduce the size of a tumor before using other types of treatment. This may also decrease the chance that the cancer will spread to other parts of your body. Chemotherapy is most often given at the same time as radiation, which is called radiosensitizing treatment. Chemotherapy may also be used for more advanced cancers, when radiation or surgery can’t be used. Or it may be used for disease that has spread.

Targeted therapy

This treatment uses medicines that target specific parts of cancer cells. For example, many head and neck cancer cells are controlled by a protein called EGFR, which helps them grow. The most commonly used medicine that targets these cells is called cetuximab. It blocks EGFR so the cancer cell growth slows or stops. Medicines that target EGFR are sometimes used to treat head and neck cancers.

Clinical trials for new treatments

Researchers are always finding new ways to treat cancer. These new methods are tested in clinical trials. Talk with your doctor to find out if there are any clinical trials you should consider.

Online Medical Reviewer: LoCicero, Richard, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Stump-Sutliff, Kim, RN, MSN, AOCNS
Date Last Reviewed: 5/1/2018
© 2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.
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